Through a Mirror Dimly

Through-a-glassy-darkly

(Artwork: “Through a Glass Darkly” by Carolyn Pyfrom)

As I ponder both the brokenness reflected by the hearing on Capitol Hill and the pain illuminated by the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, I find myself inwardly occupied by a spiritual aridity that is difficult to describe. I am trusting in the Holy Spirit to take hold of my anguish (and a country’s anguish) and carry it to the heart of God as an articulate prayer.

Never has the phrase “now we see through a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) spoken to my heart with such penetrating truth. Those words call to mind either a narcissism (that prevents us from looking beyond our own reflection) or a blurriness (that prevents us from seeing ourselves and anyone else with the kind of clarity that true love demands). In either case, the hearing in Washington and its aftermath leave me feeling like I am surrounded by dim mirrors and diminished humanity.

I pray, but my words feel empty. Perhaps I am being called to a prayer that is not spoken but lived—the incarnation of an intercession that leads to a stubborn refusal to accommodate dehumanizing relationships and malicious patterns of behavior.

Think about what the air would be like if political posturing were to give way to a heartfelt pursuit of truth or, if the truth becomes elusive, a willingness to accommodate fractured relationships with integrity and compassion.

Think about how relationships would change if the pathological ethos of “boys will be boys” were to give way to an unwavering commitment to raising up (and becoming) men (and women) whose hearts will not tolerate any form of sexual violence or malicious exploitation.

Think about how the national climate would evolve if the American people, irrespective of the direction of their vote, were to experience a grander and more compelling vision of what our country can be, beyond the manipulation, beyond the competing allegiances, beyond the sickening controversies, beyond the partisan distortions.

Think about how the church’s ministry would intensify if its people were to embrace more comprehensively the church’s beautiful and often-countercultural narrative:

A narrative in which greatness is measured by a person’s (or a country’s) commitment to servanthood;

In which truth is told without malice or agenda;

In which women and men honor one another with mutual respect instead of denigrating one another with reciprocated contempt;

In which manipulative rhetoric yields to vulnerable hearts, patiently protected and tenderly pursued.

In that case, perhaps our dim mirrors would at least begin to reflect a brighter light.

Radical Hope for the Addicted

Breaking Free by Koa Kohler

(The painting above, created by Koa Kohler, is entitled “Breaking Free”)

During my first two years in Butler, Pennsylvania, the church that I serve had a connection with 34 people who died as a result of drug overdose. When I say that there was a connection, I mean that those 34 people were either members of our church, or attenders, or related to somebody who is part of our church.

Two years. 34 overdose deaths touching our congregational family.

At the end of my second year in Butler, I stood in a funeral home, officiating at the funeral service for one of these 34 people. Just before the service, the cousin of the young woman who had died walked up to me with tears streaming down her face and spoke to me words that I will never forget. “My cousin was more like a sister to me,” she said, “and I just need you to know that there was more to her life than her addiction. She was a beautiful person who just got caught up in something bad that she couldn’t control.” Following the service for the young woman, her mother pulled me aside. “Pastor,” she said, “I don’t know what the churches of this town can do, but they have to do something. No more of this! Churches have to open their doors to addicts and their families every single day so that people can know that drugs don’t have to win.”

Here is the bottom line. During my first two years in Butler, God had to begin a massive reconstruction project on my heart and my thought processes related to addiction. I came to Butler harboring secret ideas—ideas about addiction only happening in the lives of certain kinds of people who simply need to get it together and make better choices. I now believe something very different. I now believe that the widespread reality of addiction in our community and in our world is the greatest spiritual crisis of our generation, one that demands nothing less than a transformed way of looking at the world.

And a transformed way of looking at the world is precisely what that part of the Bible we call “the Beatitudes” represents. We call them Beatitudes because that word, “beatitude,” is a derivative of a Latin word that means “blessing.” But what is seriously unnerving about the Beatitudes is who Jesus describes as being blessed in his kingdom. It is certainly not the people common sense would identify.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

(By the way, I am not sure that I have ever met anyone poorer in spirit than an addicted soul desperate for recovery.)

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

(By the way, I am not sure that I have ever encountered a deeper mourning than the mourning I have experienced in the lives of addicts and in the life of the family that surrounds the addict.)

There is a timeless relevance in the unsettling Word that Jesus offers to us through the Beatitudes. When we dare to apply the truth of the Beatitudes to our context, we find a word of radical hope even for addicted people and the families that surround them. In fact, when I quiet myself long enough to listen with my heart, here is how I am hearing the Beatitudes today:

“Blessed are those who are poor in the spirit of addiction. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn over addiction and the suffering it produces, for they shall be comforted.”

We always have to resist the temptation to make Scripture say something that it does not say. For example, when Jesus tells us that those who are poor in spirit and in a condition of mourning are “blessed,” he is not glorifying human suffering. He is not trying to get us to believe that it is a pleasant thing to suffer or to be devastated by addiction. But maybe Jesus’ point is that, in the world-altering grace of the Kingdom of God, addicted people can be spoken of as being uniquely blessed precisely because they know how desperate for deliverance they really are. The rest of us so often live in the illusion of being in control. Addicted people understand their need for salvation. The rest of us so often fall into the trap of distorted self-reliance, believing that we have no need for a savior. Addicted people are often more available to God than everyone else, precisely because they see (in a way that others cannot) that they are up against a struggle that demands a saving grace of supernatural proportions. That is why an addict can rightly be described as living in a condition of blessing—not because their addiction is good, but because their potential for recognizing the urgency and power of God’s deliverance is good.

If that is at all true, if you hear Jesus speaking a word of radical hope to the addict through the Beatitudes today, then I am inviting you to think differently with me about the reality of addiction. Here is how.

First, refuse to allow yourself to become cynical or coldhearted about the reality of addiction. Because here is the truth: Jesus never stops in his supernatural efforts to bring deliverance to addicted souls. Jesus never stops.

I heard a pastoral colleague recently (not from this community) lamenting hurtful words that she heard spoken in one of her church’s adult Sunday School classes. The hurtful words sounded something like this:

We need to stop giving these addicts Narcan because all they’re going to do is overdose again. It is a sinful waste of time and resources to keep people alive if they are just going to choose to die.

Can you imagine being the parent of an addict and hearing something like this from a Christ-following brother or sister? The pastor of that congregation put it this way:

“A statement like that indicates that our theology has not kept pace with our context. For me, this is a pro-life issue. I am a pro-life pastor who believes in a pro-life Jesus who never quits in the work of offering eternal life that he makes possible. And neither should we.”

Do not allow yourself to become cynical or coldhearted about the reality of addiction. Because Jesus never stops in his supernatural efforts to bring deliverance to addicted souls.

Second, refuse to allow yourself to become discouraged in the struggle against addiction. Be sad about it. Be heartbroken. Be devastated at times when the situation calls for it. But refuse to plant spiritual roots in the spoiled soil of discouragement. Why? Because Jesus Christ will not rest until every addict experiences the blessing of a complete deliverance from an enslavement to addiction. For some, this deliverance might take a portion of eternity that we do not yet see. But rest assured, no addict lives outside the boundaries of Jesus’ love and the redemptive grace that he is so very desperate to offer to addicted souls. And if that is true, if Jesus is on the side of the addicted and committed to their deliverance, then HOPE is our “go-to,” not discouragement.  Therefore, refuse to allow yourself to become discouraged in this. Instead, commit yourself to participating in the saving work that Jesus is doing in the world by coming alongside the addicted in whatever way is appropriate. Become a part of that saving work.

Finally, refuse to allow yourself to become judgmental or dismissive about addiction, because, here is the thing: Every single person reading these words is caught up in the rhythms of addiction. You might not be addicted to a substance, but I can practically guarantee you that you are addicted to something. We all are.

We are addicted to hurtful ways of thinking that inspire us to kneel down at the altar of our own distorted opinions.

We are addicted to hatred that prevents us from loving, forgiving, and hoping.

We are addicted to patterns of behavior that are hurtful to ourselves and the people around us.

We are addicted to false stories that prevent us from embracing the truth about ourselves and our relationship with the world.

On Facebook, one never has to look far to find someone spouting a passionate opinion (or sharing a convenient meme) about a particular subject. Politics. Religion. Movies. Sports. Hollywood. Current events. When I stumble upon such conversations, it often sounds less like the gracious pursuit of truth. In fact, it often sounds more like a bunch of addicted people getting high on the drug of their own opinions and their forced certainty.

Here is my point: When we speak of addiction, we are not speaking about “those people.” We are speaking about all of us. Because an enslavement to some kind of an addiction is a reality for all of us. When we are in relationship with Jesus, he brings us into a lifelong recovery that manifests itself as a journey of living one day at a time without the particular distortions to which we have become addicted. In that regard, the recovering addict has much to teach the church about what it means to be authentically Christian.

So, I invite you to a refusal. Refuse to allow yourself to become judgmental or dismissive about addiction. Because every single person reading these words is caught up in the rhythms of it in one way or another, and, thanks be to God, Jesus is not giving up on any single one of us!

For the last year at Butler First United Methodist Church, we have held a Saturday evening worship experience that we call “The Bridge.” Everyone is invited to the Bridge, but we offer a particularly pointed invitation to those who struggle with the reality of addiction and their families.

Why do we call it “The Bridge”? Because a bridge is precisely what we believe Jesus to be. He is the bridge from isolation to community; from despair to hope; from addiction to recovery; from being lost to being found.

We never know who is going to show up at “The Bridge.” Nor do we know exactly what will happen in each week’s worship. To be completely confessional, we don’t really know what we are doing with this ministry. (Is it okay for a pastor to admit that?!) But, every single week at “The Bridge,” it feels like we wade into deep and important water.

Last Saturday night, a man stood up during prayer time at “The Bridge,” introduced himself as a recovering addict, and announced that, as of this week, he will be six months clean. He just wanted to thank Jesus Christ for his transformed life.

Following the service, this man came forward to pray with me. When I asked him how we should pray, this was his response: “Pray that more and more people in our community will come to understand what I have come to understand.”

I couldn’t help but ask the question. “And what is it have you come to understand, Thomas?”

“What I’ve come to understand,” he said, “is that addiction is never the end of the story that Jesus writes in our lives. It might be a chapter, or even a series of chapters. But it is never the end of the story.”

That is nothing less than the Gospel, offered by Jesus through the Beatitudes and spoken afresh by a recovering addict in downtown Butler. “Addiction is never the end of the story that Jesus writes in our lives.”

That Gospel is the foundation of the radical hope offered to us by Jesus Christ, in whose name we stand against addiction and in whose name I gratefully write.

Parkland, Florida and Prayerful Outrage

Photo Parkland

Moments before I walked into our church’s Ash Wednesday service, I heard the particulars.

Another mass shooting in a school, this time in Parkland, Florida.

A 19-year-old shooter with an AR-15 and multiple magazines.

17 dead.

I am a pastor by vocation, yet I feel more outraged than pastoral at this point. Outraged at the brutality and expansiveness of the violence. Outraged at the tragically silenced potential of young lives. Outraged that a 19-year-old came to the conclusion that murder was the best way for him to voice his fury, his torment, his misanthropic angst. Outraged that public discourse on matters of gun availability has become so rancorously politicized that people quickly grab hold of their most familiar ideological tree without ever setting foot into the vast forest of sociological complexity that exists behind it. Outraged at my feelings of helplessness in the midst of an ethos of violence that exploits vulnerability and diminishes our collective hope.

Outraged at my outrage.

Then again, perhaps I am making a mistake in thinking that prophetic outrage and pastoral ministry are antithetical. When a high school becomes a setting for carnage, perhaps prophetic outrage is one of the most pastoral things that a clergyperson can offer. I hope this is true. Because, in the parlance of our time, outrage is all I got right now.

Last night, as I placed the ashes upon the foreheads of my congregants, I said something like this: “Remember that you are dust. But remember even more that God’s love for you is trustworthy and lifts you out of the ashes. Repent, and believe the Gospel.” I am heartbroken when I ponder what Ash Wednesday felt like to the people of Parkland, Florida, especially those who lost precious loved ones in yesterday’s violence. They wear the ashes of grief today in a manner I cannot fully understand, enveloped by both the frailty and the fallenness of a human journey that I suspect feels directionless to them right now.

So what do I do with this outrage? What do you do with yours? How do we channel it so that it becomes something more than amplified sentimentality?

Perhaps all that I can do right now is offer this muddled description of my raw pain conjoined with my deepest hopes. I am praying that you can find your own voice in what I share.  Here goes.

I am wearily mystified and cripplingly horrified by the violence. I do not know what to say anymore. I do not know how to feel, how to act. Sometimes I do not even know how to pray. I simply get quiet in God’s presence with a numb kind of silence, trusting in the Holy Spirit to intercede on my behalf—trusting him to take the deepest groans of my soul and bring them to the heart of God as understandable petitions.

I desperately want our politics, laws, and policies, particularly those related to the stewardship we practice over firearms, to be wise and practical, persistent and visionary, perceptive and prophetic. I long for a way forward that gives peace, sensibility, and justice their best chance at finding dynamic expression. I am desperate for both a cultural and Congressional response to the gun violence epidemic that will take our collective discernment beyond the rhetoric of shortsighted lobbyists and agenda-driven demagogues.

I am envisioning heartfelt dialogue and strategic action overseen by truth-seeking and justice-loving souls—souls who are not so bitterly entrenched in their position that they cannot appreciate the limits of their own vision.

We are confronted by a violence that prayer may not extinguish, yet I desperately and frantically pray. I cry out to God with wordless screams, begging for a grace that saves, a love that heals, and a Spirit who whispers unimaginable life into places of incomprehensible death.

Beyond prayer, perhaps the most moral and personal response to the mass shooting in Parkland is a commitment to naming and addressing violence (physical, emotional, and spiritual) wherever it is found and an unwavering devotion to the kind of life in which an ethos of violence cannot find enough air to survive. Irrespective of the perpetrator—a bully in the school hallway, a spouse in the living room, an employer or colleague in the workplace, a leader in the church, or a loud voice in social media—violence in any form warrants the attention of those who recognize that the way of peace (with justice) demands a resounding “NO” to the politics of mistreatment. An ethos of violence, after all, is built with the bricks of the everyday mistreatment of those we feel justified in undervaluing. Yesterday’s bloodshed in Parkland inspires a commitment to a more rigorous stewardship over our words, our behavior, our anger, our relationships, and our engagement with the world around us.

I have never been more convinced that people must not lose heart in this struggle. Nothing good can come from allowing cynicism, sarcasm, hatred, or an unadulterated sense of one’s own rightness to harden one’s heart. Nothing has happened, and nothing WILL happen, that is outside the scope of what God sees, weeps over, and creatively redeems. I want to work for peace, even when it seems unattainable. I want to pursue justice, even when the answers are not clear. Most of all, I want to live into a risky and sacrificial love, thereby reminding the world that violence and hatred are not humankind’s defining narrative.

That is what I will do with my outrage.

A Hollywood Scandal and the Scandalous Reality That Undergirds It

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Recent accusations and allegations in the Hollywood community have illuminated with horrifying clarity the mistreatment and dehumanization of women within the very industry upon which we so frequently depend for compelling and life-giving stories. The scandal surrounding producer Harvey Weinstein is neither compelling nor life-giving. Quite the contrary, it is a narrative of brokenness that shines intense light on both sexist hierarchies and accommodated injustices. It is a methodical and long-standing moral failure that diminishes all of us, whether we realize it or not.

As a male, it is sometimes difficult for me to discern the most meaningful way for me to find my voice in a discussion like the one this scandal demands. My inability to understand the fullness of what it means to be a woman in our world, coupled with my fear of sounding like a privileged observer who is way out of his depth, makes me somewhat reluctant to say anything at all. Silence in the face of injustice, however, is precisely the kind of response that permits the perpetuation of the kinds of environments that men like Harvey Weinstein have enjoyed for so long. As awkward as finding a voice in these conversations can be, silence is simply not a moral option.

And so, I speak. I speak with a penitent heart and a grieved spirit. I speak with a re-awakened anger, a re-engaged sadness, and a re-energized vision for redeemed relationships. I speak through groans too deep for words, trusting in the Holy Spirit to carry my feeble articulations to the heart of God as the petitions that they should be.

I speak through a desperate and broken prayer.

For what am I praying?

I am praying that the hearts of all people (women, men, and youth), are meaningfully broken and outraged whenever women are objectified, dehumanized, and violated by any language or behavior that perpetrates a violence against women and against the sacred image of God that women so uniquely bear. Whether in the locker room or the living room, the church hallway or the workplace, such language and behavior corrupt our relationships and disfigure our shared humanity. If we wink at it, make light of it, or ignore it altogether, our hearts become colder and harder to one another’s personhood and to the supernatural love that God created us to manifest. I believe this with all of my being.

I am also praying a prayer of repentance for the way in which the church (of all denominations) has all too frequently reinforced and perpetuated the mistreatment and undervaluing of women through silence, through institutionalized misogyny, and through a stubborn refusal to subordinate distorted understandings of masculinity and femininity to the transforming Way of Jesus.

The repentance I am describing is deeply personal for me today as I spend a few moments looking at photographs of the women who have shaped my life through their love, integrity, and giftedness. I am thinking of my wife. My mother. My sister. My nieces and sisters-in-law. Teachers, Sunday School teachers, pastors, and friends who have mentored me and taught me what it means to be authentically human. As I celebrate the image of God that these women so beautifully reveal, I repent of the ways in which I contribute, wittingly and unwittingly, to an ethos of gender-driven mistreatment that might make it painfully difficult for these women I love—and all women—to live into the world-changing and countercultural community that Galatians 3:28 describes:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Therein lies my response as a male searching to find his voice in this heartbreaking but urgent conversation. My response is a deepening repentance, an escalated attentiveness to the stories and journeys of women, and an intensified commitment to being part of the cultural and ecclesiastical transformation that I desire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christian Ethics and the Conundrum of Gun Control

rosary beads and gun

As a follower of Jesus, I am often far less interested in the opinion that a person holds on an issue than I am in how the person arrived at that opinion and, even more important, how the person engages both with those who hold a similar viewpoint and those who approach the issue with different convictions.

I have long believed that arriving at a passionately-held opinion is the least-demanding portion of ethical discourse. Strong opinions, while they may involve a certain degree of deductive or inductive reasoning and sophisticated cognition, require no artistry, nuance, or relationship. They demand nothing more than an individual’s intellectual assent to an articulated position. Following the intellectual assent, the opinion itself often becomes as comfortable as rhythmic breathing, rarely contemplated, but regularly expressed.

Holding strong opinions is the easy part. Everyone can do it and normally does.

The real challenge of ethical discourse, however, involves the territory that surrounds the opinion. Has the opinion been reached in a manner that is intellectually holistic and experientially reinforced? Has the opinion been cultivated with a reasonable attentiveness to all of the available data and not simply the portions of data that reinforce our preexisting predilections? Has the opinion been liberated from the weight of rhetoric and tested with the scrutiny of an open and rigorous mind? And is the opinion held with the kind of flexible intellectual grip that permits engagement with differing viewpoints? These are the questions that lead a person well beyond the simple “speaking of one’s mind” and into the undulating terrain of ethical contemplation and moral decision-making.

If one is a Christ-follower, the task becomes even more complex. Christianity’s narrative is one that is rich with seemingly absurd instructions: Do not simply speak the truth (or, translated a bit differently, do not simply speak your mind), but “speak the truth IN LOVE” (Ephesians 4:15). Do not simply insist on a particular course of action, but conduct yourself in a spirit that is “not arrogant or rude…or irritable or resentful.  (1 Corinthians 13:5). Do not become idolatrous about particular opinions, but be perpetually aware of the fact that “our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect” (1 Corinthians 13:9).

In the face of a rather complex social issue in his day, the Apostle Paul addressed the question of what Christ-followers are to do about eating meat that had been offered to idols, since there existed an ethical and theological disagreement between those who felt free to eat what they wanted and those who felt obligated to adhere to strict dietary laws. Paul’s counsel in the matter bears witness to his conviction that, at least in certain ethical and spiritual matters, the particular opinion one holds is less important than the manner in which s/he holds it: “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak…If food is the cause of [people’s] falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall” (1 Corinthians 8:8-9, 13).

In this revelatory moment in Paul’s ministry, he expresses the rather countercultural idea that one’s individual viewpoint cannot be so monolithic and uncompromising that it refuses to be subordinated to the integrity and preservation of that diverse and heterogeneous community that Christians call church. In other words, to borrow Paul’s language from earlier in this same portion of Scripture, agapic love is the governor of individual opinions, since “knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1).

What does all of this have to do with the current debate on gun control? Much, I think. Followers of Jesus, if they are to be true to the narrative by which they are called to live, must be specifically Christian, not only in the opinions that they hold, but also in the manner in which they arrive at those opinions, steward those opinions, and communicate those opinions.  To borrow the Apostle Paul’s framework, Christ-followers are simply not permitted to elevate a particular conviction about eating meat (or, for that matter, owning guns) above their moral responsibility to preserve the kind of Christ-centered community that is durable enough to accommodate differing viewpoints without rancor, without malice, and without a sharp-edged insistence upon one’s own rightness.

The Christian narrative, of course, in no way removes from the Christ-follower the opportunity to develop and hold passionate viewpoints and convictions. Christians are not called to be devoid of individual perspective. What is powerfully unique about the Christ-follower’s individual perspective, though, is the way in which the Christ-follower is called to manage and articulate it. Specifically, Christ-followers are called to hold and offer their convictions in a manner that bears consistent witness to their stubborn refusal to value their opinions over their relationships with those who do not share them. I see this as a critical portion of the sanctification of individual perspectives.

In light of the urgency of this sanctification, I offer the following thoughts. These are my own personal opinions, held firmly but with a flexible grip:

1. Christ-followers would do well to make peace with the fact that intelligent people of deep and authentic faith reside on both sides of the issue of gun control. Several months ago, I shared a meal with two Christians that I greatly admire, one of whom is a pacifist who sees no value whatsoever in most gun control legislation (since, in his words, “the peace we are called to manifest will never be legislated”). The other Christian at the table was a soldier, hunter, and gun-owner who believes that new regulations related to gun and ammunition control are “desperately needed in this country, if for no other reason to establish the right boundaries for how the issue is approached.”

While I personally gravitated toward the viewpoint of the soldier, I found myself deeply encouraged by the absence of bitterness in the conversation. These were not rhetoricians insisting on the absoluteness of their own rightness. They were brothers in Christ who seemed genuinely interested in how the other person arrived at his conviction. I did not have the sense that either man had become idolatrous about his opinion; or that either man felt that the Kingdom of God (or the United States Constitution, for that matter) depended upon the promulgation of his viewpoint; or that their individual perspectives were more important to either of them than their shared friendship. Rather, I sensed that I was in the presence of two men of deep intellect and even deeper faith whose respectful disagreement about gun control found a comfortable home in the context of their mystical and durable oneness in Christ. On that afternoon, the salad bar at Eat’n Park became a Eucharistic meal where differing opinions were nothing but optional side dishes to the shared Bread of Heaven and Cup of Salvation.

2. Christ-followers would do well to remember that, in a specifically Christian conversation about moral behavior, the foundational question is never “What do I have the right to do?” but rather “What IS right to do?” It troubles me when Christian people limit their ethical conversations to debates about the nuances of their constitutional or civil “rights,” since, for Christ-followers, the primary concern is not the preservation of identified rights but the transformational and Spirit-enabled pursuit of righteousness.

This is not to suggest that the clear enumeration and protection of constitutional and civil rights is not an important conversation in which to participate. Such rights, after all, are an integral portion of the maintenance of a fair and just nation.  In a specifically Christian morality, however, the concept of unalienable rights (which is not a Biblical concept) is never the starting or ending point of any conversation.  Rather, Christocentric ethics are grounded in a different set of questions: What is the most right thing for me to do? What is the most helpful and edifying thing for me to do?  Am I being called to sacrifice something for a greater good? Am I being called to defend something because of a Biblical principle?  What decision will represent my very best effort to work toward a just and merciful outcome? How can I best bear witness to my primary identity—not my identity as an American citizen with inalienable rights, but my identity as a baptized follower of Jesus whose national citizenship, while important, is secondary to his/her Christological citizenship?

Such questions will not always lead two Christians to the same ethical viewpoint, especially on a controversial matter like gun control. My fear, however, is not potential disagreement. My fear is that, in the current climate, too many Christians are arriving at an opinion without an honest wresting with the right questions.

3. Christ-followers would do well to remember what history has all too frequently taught us—that vitriolic fundamentalism of any sort normally distorts the pursuit of moral truth and replaces the dynamic hunger for righteousness with a stifling and malicious desire to protect and promulgate a particular ideology. Concerning the particular issue at hand, fundamentalism is alive and well. It might come in the form of one of these viewpoints:

*“They will have to pry my gun out of my cold dead fingers!”

*“People who aren’t in favor of gun control are ALL addicted to the pathological violence of our culture.”

*“I don’t see how ANY CHRISTIAN could NOT be in favor of stricter gun laws, especially in the aftermath of what happened in Las Vegas.”

*“The ONLY WAY to ensure our freedom as a country is to preserve the right to arm ourselves with the same kind of weapons that our military has. It is our ONLY protection against the development of tyranny.”

These very real and current viewpoints may raise significant issues for the conversation, but the tone of the viewpoints resonates, not with a passionate yearning for a just and truthful discernment, but a fundamentalistic impulse to fixate on a conviction while dismissing or demonizing those who do not agree with it. The church behaves like the church only when it refuses to allow any ethical conversation to be stifled by the compartmentalizing rubrics of fundamentalism.

4. Christ-followers would do well to practice the spiritual discipline of acknowledging (to themselves and others) the fact that they might be wrong in their opinions, no matter how right they believe themselves to be. Again, by this I do not mean to suggest that Christians are to relinquish their strong views on important issues. I am convinced, however, that we practice specifically Christian ethics only when we operate with a keen awareness of the important differences between “conviction” and “certainty.” Convictions are discerned and lived. Certainty is established and protected. Convictions can live peacefully with opposing convictions. Certainty normally seeks to defend its territory. Convictions can be held firmly but gently, with a profound awareness of our incomplete knowledge. Certainty often demands a tighter grip and the illusion of omniscience.

Related to the issue of gun control—and all other issues—Christ-followers are at their best when they manifest the kind of genuine humility that heartfelt convictions permit but that rigid certainty resists.

5. Christ-followers would do well to commit themselves to making certain that their contemplation and discussion of gun control bear witness to the “new creatures” that they have become in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) and the new birth that Christ makes possible (John 3:3). No matter whether one opposes or supports gun control reform, it is essential for the Christ-follower to resist the ethical schizophrenia of being Christologically reborn but behaviorally and practically heathen. If Christ has made one new, then even the manner in which one articulates one’s perspectives and participates in public debate must be under the transformation of sanctification.

Practically speaking, this will mean that Christ-followers will listen respectfully and attentively to opposing viewpoints, thereby avoiding the temptation to become nothing more than “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

It will mean that Christ-followers on both sides of the issue will refuse to allow the issue itself to become a divisive litmus test for relationship, thereby ensuring a commitment to being “patient and kind…not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”

It will mean that Christ-followers will be far more interested in standing on the solid ground of ever-expanding discernment than they are in jumping on the bandwagon of convenient and divisive rhetoric, thereby generating a spirit that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Most of all, it will mean that Christ-followers will live with a perpetual and holistic awareness of the fact that, irrespective of what decisions are made related to gun control reform, our life-giving hope and deepest deliverance are not to be found in the preservation, reformation, or interpretation of a constitutional amendment, but in Christ’s astoundingly gracious invitation to participate in an often countercultural and radically peaceable Kingdom in which “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Opinions, Convictions, and Community

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It is an extended season of rancorous debate. In the surrounding culture, the tone of political conversation has a sense of frightening desperation about it. Even in the ecclesiastical world in which I live and breathe (United Methodism), the divisions in our church are often clearly and painfully illuminated.

As a follower of Jesus, I am interested, not only in the particular position that one holds on an issue, but also in the process by which he or she arrived at that position and, even more important, the way in which he or she engages with those on both sides of the issue.

I have long believed that arriving at a passionately held opinion is the least demanding portion of ethical discourse. Strong opinions, while they may involve a certain degree of deductive or inductive reasoning and sophisticated cognition, require no artistry, nuance, or relationship. They demand nothing more than an individual’s intellectual assent to an articulated position. Following the intellectual assent, the opinion often becomes as comfortable for its holder as rhythmic breathing—rarely contemplated, but regularly expressed.

Holding strong opinions is the easy part. Everyone can do it and normally does.

The real challenge of ethical discourse, however, involves the territory that surrounds the opinion. Has the opinion been reached in a manner that is intellectually holistic and experientially reinforced? Has the opinion been cultivated with a reasonable attentiveness to all of the available data and not simply the portions of data that reinforce our preexisting predilections? Has the opinion been liberated from the weight of rhetoric and tested with the scrutiny of an open and rigorous mind? And is the opinion held with the kind of flexible intellectual grip that permits illuminating engagement with differing viewpoints? These are the questions that lead one well beyond the simple speaking of one’s mind and into the undulating terrain of ethical contemplation and moral decision-making.

If one is a Christ-follower, the task becomes even more complex. Christianity’s narrative is one that is rich with seemingly absurd instructions: Do not simply speak the truth (or speak one’s mind), but “speak the truth IN LOVE” (Ephesians 4:15). Do not simply insist on a particular course of action, but reflect a spirit that is “not arrogant or rude…or irritable or resentful” (1 Corinthians 13:5). Do not become idolatrous about particular opinions, but be perpetually aware of the fact that “our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect” (1 Corinthians 13:9).

In the face of a rather complex social issue in his day, the Apostle Paul addressed the question of what Christ-followers are to do about eating meat that had been offered to idols, since there existed an ethical and theological disagreement between those who felt free to eat what they wanted and those who felt obligated to adhere to strict dietary laws. Paul’s counsel in the matter bears witness to his conviction that, at least in certain matters, the particular position one holds is less important than the manner in which she or he holds it:  “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak…If food is the cause of [people’s] falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall” (1 Corinthians 8:8-9, 13).

In this particular moment of Paul’s interpretation of Christian ethics, he expresses the rather countercultural idea that one’s individual viewpoint cannot be so monolithic and uncompromising that it refuses to allow for the preservation of that diverse and heterogeneous community that Christians call church. In other words, to borrow Paul’s language from earlier in this same portion of Scripture, love is the governor of individual opinions and not the other way around, since “knowledge puffs up but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).

What does all of this have to do with us? Consider this: Followers of Jesus, if they are to be true to the narrative by which they are called to live, must be specifically Christian, not only in the opinions that they hold, but also in the manner in which they arrive at those opinions, steward those opinions, and communicate those opinions. To borrow the Apostle Paul’s framework, Christ-followers are simply not permitted to elevate a particular conviction, whatever that conviction may be, above their moral responsibility to preserve and honor the kind of Christ-centered community that is durable enough to accommodate differing viewpoints without rancor, without malice, and without a sharp-edged insistence upon one’s own rightness.

The Christian narrative, of course, in no way removes from the Christ-follower the responsibility of developing and holding passionate personal convictions. Christians are not called to be devoid of individual perspective. What is powerfully unique about the Christ-follower’s individual perspective, though, is the way in which the Christ-follower is called to manage and articulate it. Specifically, Christ-followers are called to hold and offer their convictions in a manner that bears consistent witness to their stubborn refusal to value their opinions over their relationships with those who do not share them. I see this as a critical portion of the sanctification of individual perspectives. Granted, a person may eventually discern that it is time to separate from a particular segment of community because his or her convictions differ so substantively from the direction of that community that the convictions can no longer be lived out with integrity. Even on those occasions, however, the separation must be stewarded with the kind of durable love that seeks to build more bridges than walls, more understanding than condemnation.

Practically speaking, all of this will mean that Christ-followers will commit themselves to listening respectfully and attentively to opposing viewpoints, thereby avoiding the temptation to become nothing more than “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

It will mean that Christ-followers on both sides of an issue will refuse to allow the issue itself to become a divisive litmus test for relationship, thereby ensuring a commitment to being “patient and kind…not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.”

It will mean that Christ-followers will be far more interested in standing on the solid ground of ever-expanding discernment than they are in jumping on the bandwagon of convenient and divisive rhetoric, thereby generating a spirit that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Most of all, it will mean that Christ-followers will live with a perpetual and holistic awareness of the fact that, irrespective of what decisions are made related to various issues, our life-giving hope and deepest deliverance are not to be found in a particular collection of viewpoints, but in Christ’s astoundingly gracious invitation to participate in an often countercultural and radically peaceable Kingdom in which “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Half a Century In

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About nine months ago, I shared with some of you a very rough version of a song I wrote to mark a personal milestone–my 5oth birthday.  Today, I am sharing an updated version of the song that is a little bit clearer and better produced.

It is a song fueled by both nostalgia and navigation; both whimsical remembering and earnest introspection; both reflection on the past and acknowledgment of a growing up that is still taking place .  In short, it is a song about life.  My life.  Your life.  All life.

As you listen to it, I hope that you are inspired to hold in your thoughts the nature and the nuances of the human pilgrimage–its beauty, its fragility, and, certainly, its brevity.

I am grateful that all of you have been part of my first half century.

Half a Century In (words and music by Eric Park)

Feeling not so young
Feeling not so old
Seeming less high strung
At least that’s what I’m told

Looking toward the past
Covers ample ground
I guess I got here fast
And I’m glad I’m still around

The year I joined the race
Silent were the sounds
Trekking into space
Soldiers on the ground

History has a way
Of wearing different skin
That’s how it looks today
Half a century in

Half a century in
Half a century in
Upheld by a steady grace
Half a century in

Tender are the thoughts
Prone to reminisce
Connecting all the dots
Through souls I dearly miss

Laughter shapes the joy
Grief refines the pain
A man with shades of boy
A journey to maintain

Half a century in
Half a century in
Grateful for the wonderment
Half a century in

Sweetness of parental care
Hymns to Jesus sung
Reborn through love and quiet prayer
Getting old, but still so young

Covenants and wedding bells
Two lives are intertwined
The story that our marriage tells
Is how my life’s defined

None of this deserved
None of it was owed
Like a banquet served
A feast of grace bestowed

Looking now ahead
Wondering what will be
Grateful for the threads
And the woven tapestry

Half a century in
Half a century in
Transformed by the pilgrimage
Half a century in

Half a century in
Half a century in
Saved by grace and growing still
Half a century in